Written in June last year and presented yesterday the 17 March 2010 to Cambridge Men’s Probus Club here is the text of Dad’s Memories presentation.
Bruce Jeans | Animal Stories | Memories of Whitehall
As a boy I grew up on the farm in Whitehall eight miles out of Cambridge and spent all of my working life on that farm. During that period I experienced many aspects of animal and bird behaviour and looking back I realise that our so called domesticated animals still retain some elements of their wild ancestors’ instinct for survival and sometimes even seem almost to think in human terms.
The following incidents are drawn from those memories and from stories I was told starting with a story of a cat told by my mother.
The district at this time was in an early stage of development with much country still in its original state of fern, teatree and even patches of bush which gave plenty of cover for various wildlife both native and imported. Cats were an essential part of early life in the district to help control rats and mice which tended to seek shelter and food as the winter approached. Rabbits were also plentiful in the district at this time in the early 1900s. Mum and Dad were married about 1920 after Dad returned from the first world war. Mum tells the story of an early cat which was a good rabbiter, it would come home with a rabbit in its mouth, lay it on the kitchen floor and fuss around until Mum gave it a pat and told it how clever it was. It would then carry the rabbit outside and have a feed. In later life the cat developed sores and Mum in her wisdom decided it was perhaps getting too much fresh meat so next time the cat bought a rabbit home she took it away. It was not long before a half eaten rabbit came home.
When I was growing up, possibly a teenager, I was sitting on the back steps with the current cat handy. It must have been springtime as two male blackbirds flew down on the ground nearby and started to fight. The cat raced across and sprang catching both birds one under each paw. It stood there holding both birds down but not attempting to bite them. It stood there for several seconds its head held high for all the world looking as if it was wondering what to do next. It then stepped back and allowed two relieved birds to fly away.
Another cat story I well remember was after I married I had to go over to the haybarn for some reason and found a wild kitten hiding in the hay bales. It was obviously hungry but although only half grown it spat and showed its claws when I attempted to pick it up. I went away and found a piece of sacking and went back and caught the kitten and took it over to the house. I placed it in a box and then went and got a saucer of milk and placed it in the box. The kitten accepted the milk and was almost immediatly tame. Instinct must have taken over making it realise it was safe. It grew up and remained as our house cat for a number of years.
As we farmed dairy cows they were a big part of our life. I particularly remember one cow called dewlap. In the early days some farmers would mark their animals by making a nick in the loose skin under their neck, this would heal and grow in this case about three inches long hanging down and there by making a clear identification mark.
This cow which Dad had bought had apparently came from a back country farm and was rather wild. After it calved Dad attempted to drive it into a bail for milking without success. He then resorted to a method used for breaking in horses. He got a length of rope and lassoed the cow passed the rope around a post in the bail which happened to be the end bail. He then got behind the cow and tightened the rope causing the cow to choke down. The cow was then released and then allowed up. Realising it couldn’t get away it then entered the bail and was milked. For the rest of its life the cow gave no further trouble. It would come into the yard and if the end bail was empty it would go straight in – if it was occupied it would wait until the bail was empty it never entered another bail.
I was present on a similar occasion when Uncle Ern who farmed next door rang to say he had a stray heifer of ours which had somehow managed to stray into their place. Dad and I went up and found the heifer shut in the yard by itself we had somehow to get it home perhaps half a mile across several paddocks. Dad used the same method lasooing the heifer and choking it down. On getting it to it’s feet we made a rough halter by passing a half hitch around its nose. I then led the heifer home, it walked quite happily beside me making no attempt to get away.
Many birds and animals in the wild have an instictive method of protecting their young. I observed a pukeko I disturbed run off and flew into neighbouring willows leaving it’s chicks which had dived into long grass. I walked across and parted the grass and their was a chick head down motionless in the grass where I presume it would remain until it’s mother returned and gave the all clear after danger had passed.
I observed the same thing when I encountered a ferrit feeding it’s young in a gully below me. The dog raced down and the ferrit ran off drawing the dog away and disappeared into nearby black berry bushes leaving the young to dive into the safety of the long grass. Domesticated bird and animals retain some of these instincts for survival. I bred large white pigs which must be hundreds of years away from the wild state. One day I was walking over to the piggery when I encountered a sow out grazing with her litter of piglets in relatively long grass. She did not see me until I was quite close when she gave a snort of alarm causing the litter to dive for cover in the long grass and lie motionless until the sow, realising it was only me, walked off towards the stye grunting quietly and the litter quickly followed.
We also bred geese on the farm for a number of years and they made their home around a small dam on the farm. One day I was passing close to the dam and I saw a splash and a gosling disappeared. I assumed an eel had grabbed it and thought no more about it. On a later occasion I was right by the dam and the same thing happened, when I saw the gosling just below me swimming just under the surface heading for the reeds around the edge of the dam. Where it presumably remained hidden until any danger was passed.
Skylarks were plentiful when I was growing up and being a ground bird they had to adapt to being vulnerable to various vermin during the mating season. They learnt to sit tight on their nest only to fly off if man or beast was going to step on their nest. Often flying up almost under ones feet when a short search would find a nest with three or four brown speckled eggs concealed in the grass. They would often be seen crouched on the ground possibly near their nest but drawing attention to themselves and only flying away when approached. Thus leading a person away from the nest. They were even known to limp away as if one wing was damaged again drawing attention to themselves.
One skylark really puzzled me as it stayed crouched on the ground as I approached it, and I stopped and picked it up thinking it was hurt. It made no attempt to struggle and I gently lifted one wing to see if I could see any damage and it flew away, leaving me to wonder why. I never ever saw young skylarks.
We are all well aware of stories of the wild west where the herd was panicked causing a stampeed away from imagined or as in the wild real danger. I observed this in the dairy herd one day when something panicked a cow in the near corner of the yard for a few seconds I thought the far side of the yard would collapse as the panic spread and about a third of the yard emptied but luckily it held. The domestic herd also contained a ranking where the boss cow could be observed with a comfortable space around her will the rest of the herd were closely packed. Fighting was normally only a brief skirmish with a sharp bunt generally putting an animal in her place. However when a bossy cow calved late when the herd had settled into their routine and the late comer tried to reassert her dominance several head to head fights could occur.
Another incident I observed over the years which used to alert the whole herd was when a cow died and had to be dragged away and disposed of. A member of the herd coming across the drag mark and catching a strange scent would let out a loud bellow causing the whole herd to come running. Perhaps this was a call to the whole herd to gather together when danger threatened.
When I took over the farm I used the electric fence extensively first the battery operated then the mains unit this was in continuous use. Although I got the occasional shock it never bothered me as I felt it only in my hands and never the rest of my body.
My father in law on the other hand got a shock right across his body. This was backed up by a relative of mine who was a teacher interested in electronics. He tested his class using low voltage equipment and found a large varience in the children’s resistance to an electric shock.
Towards the end of my farmning career I reared bulls and to protect the neighbouring farms ran an electric fence along the top of both boundaries. One day I was down the back and found a Fallow stag which in attempting to jump the fence had caught it’s leg between the electic fence and the top wire without apparently shorting the fence. It had not moved and did not appear to have broken its neck I assumed the continuous shock had paralized it and it died where it fell.
In talking to other farmers I heard of several incidences of animals caught in electric fences and being found dead. This worried me when a few years ago a young boy died caught in an electric fence over Morrinsville way. I took the matter to the local police who did not seem very concerned and referred me to the local citizens advice beaureau. I did not follow it further but have been a little concerned with the proliferation of ten acre clocks and the possible increase in the use of electric fences where young children are present.
Another incident occured during the tailing of lambs on a neighbouring farm. We had rounded up a mob of several hundred ewes and lambs and had seperated off the lambs prior to starting tailing. At that point morning tea arrived so we sat down to the background noise of perhaps 800 ewes and lambs calling to each other as they vainly sought their lost mother or off spring. We sat around in a group discussing the job or what was curent news of the day when suddenly there was dead silence, it probably only lasted for several seconds before the silence was broken by a lone ewe calling. The rest of the flock quickly joined in again. For that brief moment the silence was uncanny and I was reminded of the saying of angels passing overhead when the same thing happened in a room full of people.
The odds of the same thing happening with a flock of ewes and lambs must be very high indeed. I have never thought to ask other farmers if they have experienced a similar occurence.
Another incident occurred while helping a near neighbour. Ted Hulse had decided to go into dear farming. Fallow deer had been released into the district in the early days and still remained in the native bush behind the local quarry and would come out onto the neighbouring farms to feed at night. Ted built a jump-in adjacent to the bush and deer fences around that area of his farm.
He soon had a reasonable number of deer and was busy building the necessary facilities to handle them. Came the time to round up the deer for the first time and I was called upon to help. This proved quite a challenge as despite having a wing fence to drive the deer towards the yards our first two attempts failed when several deer broke and rushed past us followed by most of the herd.
A few did go into the yards. We were finally successful and had the whole heard in a relatively large holding yard. It was at this stage that we noticed a young deer lying on the ground. On examination it seemed in a very stressed condition and died soon after.
We noticed several others still on their feet but in a similar condition. By the end of the day seven deer all male had died from stress. Luckily this was not repeated on future occasions as the deer became accustomed to being handled.